There's traditionally been a kind of musical separation between church and state. Christians weren’t supposed to be concerned with politics or injustice. Many Gospel musicians refer to their careers as “ministries,” but the reality is they're in a business, and a cutthroat one at that. Once you start putting a price tag on anything, it becomes a less pure expression. When and if Gospel music becomes more than just a way to make a buck off of church folk, I’m sure I’ll get more excited about it.
The two shouldn't be mutually exclusive.
We shouldn’t ring a curtain down between art and spirituality.
We shouldn’t partition off sections of ourselves into the
“secular” and “sacred,” dismissing wonderful art, literature,
poetry and, yes, music that is not necessarily “Gospel.” That’s
how I was brought up. Music either was Gospel or was not Gospel,
i.e. Devil Music. And Devil Music was not to be played in Mama’s
House. Mind you, when I was growing up, secular music was no
more harmless than I Heard It Through The Grapevine and, say,
Hollywood Swinging—a song I, to this day, can’t explain to
anybody. I remember spending summers at a white Presbyterian
summer camp where the blandest, lamest sacred music you can
possibly imagine was routinely blasted from loudspeakers all
over the camp. The more raucous, toe-tapping Gospel of my youth
was disallowed— after all, it had drums in it. The church should
be effective enough in its work to not have to resort to book
burning and censorship to protect us. The church should not be
The Thought Police. Keeping Christians in pens, in small cells
of mind-controlled social stasis, is the laziest expression of
ministry. Ministry is about connecting people to God— not
policing behavior or art or thought. Of course, doing the mind
control thing is perhaps easier than doing our real jobs.
Helping someone get to know God in a real way is much harder
than getting them a haircut and dictating patterns of behavior.
Growing up, I naively believed the Gospel music industry was an extension of the Gospel ministry, that the two complemented and enhanced one another. With maturation, I realized that, once you start putting a price tag on anything, it becomes less of a pure expression. And, while there’s nothing endemically wrong with imbuing the art of music with the message of Christ, things becoming exponentially dicier once you start charging money for it.
The break in the Gospel music dam actually came in 1999, when
Kim Burrell dropped Everlasting Life, her sophomore
effort (a first, less-inspired first album was recently
repackaged and foisted on us as a “new” Burrell CD). Alive with
jazz and big band riffs, freestyle improvisations and
compositions which marvelously broke most every rule, Burrell’s
Everlasting Life was, for many of us, the shot heard ‘round the
world. It sounded almost nothing like a Gospel album, but it had
anointing to spare. That anointing bridged the gap between our
expectations and what Kim delivered: a major break with
tradition, even the tradition of contemporary Gospel music set
by pioneers like Andrae Crouch and Walter Hawkins. Burrell’s CD
sounded like nobody but Kim Burrell, and who the heck is this
woman? Became the catchphrase for many, many months.
Until Burrell released Kim Burrell Live in 2000, which quickly became the seminal work of her career and the standard for progressive black Christian music. I wish they’d actually made this a 2-CD set. The video has almost forty minutes of additional music and, from experience, I’m sure there was more than that that ended up on the cutting room floor. Burrell’s Live album remains a pivotal moment in Gospel music history (see my essay about it), and it served up a hollerin’ wake-up call to many up-and-coming Gospel producers and artists.
Burrell has subsequently vanished, making only scattered appearances on other acts’ albums, singing songs completely wrong fro her. I find it difficult to believe Burrell is having difficulty landing a record deal, so I’m going out on a limb and assume she is in some manner or conflict with Tommy Boy Gospel, her record label, Burrell having attained a stature I’m sure her original contract never envisioned. Record companies routinely employ an evil provision called Injunctive Relief, which literally bars an act from recording anywhere else until the contract dispute is resolved. This injunctive relief usually also prevents the act from talking about ongoing legal disputes between the artist and record company. I’m just guessing; otherwise I can’t imagine where’s she’s been or why she’d vanish just as she became the dominant voice in contemporary black Gospel.
Out of Kim Burrell’s wake came Mary Mary, propelled forward by Producer Warryn Campbell and their own songwriting and vocal skills. “Just as Columbia act Lauryn Hill expanded the audience for hip-hop with her The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album in 1998,” reviewer William Ruhlmann wrote, “Mary Mary is likely to push back the barriers for gospel, an event that has been in the making for some years, especially in the work of Kirk Franklin, and that is long overdue.”
Their current, self-titled CD Mary Mary continues that tradition of innovation, fun, and anointing. I am surprised by them, thrilled by them and ministered to by them. Even as other girl acts try and emulate their style, sisters Erica and Tina (Trecina) Atkins continue to prove they are, indeed, the standard bearers.